top of page

Curry J. Hackett

Ugly Beauties

The Plaza at 300 Ashland, Brooklyn
by Logan Royce Beitmen, April 12, 2024


It is easy to dismiss flowers as frivolous, just as it’s easy to dismiss utopian philosophies as pie-in-the-sky fantasies, yet Curry J. Hackett’s provocatively titled Ugly Beauties encourages us to think seriously about what a world built on the ideals of plantlike improvisatory growth and mutual flourishing might look like. His large-scale installation at 300 Ashland in front of the BAM complex in Brooklyn features images of Black figures juxtaposed with, and sometimes adorned with, dandelions, yarrow, and burdock—plant species that have been part of African and Native American healing practices since time immemorial but which are too often dismissed as “weeds” by those who don’t know any better. Like flower-bedecked parade performers at a harvest festival or dancers at a Caribbean carnival, Hackett’s figures seem almost supernaturally ornamented yet they blend in perfectly with their environment and with one another. His “lush collage of weedy worlds,” as the curatorial statement puts it, poses a utopian counterfactual to its gentrified urban setting—a compelling vision of healthy and thriving Black communities communing with nature. 


Lest you think Hackett is some kind of tech-phobic back-to-nature Luddite, it should be noted that he created these images with the AI program Midjourney, and I believe he is one of the most interesting artists working with AI today. He is certainly better than Refik Anadol, whose installation at the MoMA last year Jerry Saltz accurately dubbed a “glorified lava lamp,” or Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst, whose current contribution to the Whitney Biennial looks like bad sci-fi fan art for Disney’s Brave. His work also departs markedly from the Wakanda-like images of Fanuel Leul and the interplanetary dreamscapes of Serwah Attafuah, which, while visually seductive, rely on well-worn Afrofuturist tropes. 


I have not met Hackett, but I have been following his work on Instagram for about a year. A number of prominent artists follow him, too, including April Bey and Theaster Gates. It’s easy to see why. His photorealistic renderings of quilt-wrapped bridges and cathedrals, inflatable stoops with bounce-house railings, and topiaries in the shape of Nubian pyramids offer extraordinary visions of undreamed-of worlds, all of which are rooted in Black vernacular design traditions. Trained as an architect (he is currently finishing his Masters at Harvard), Hackett belongs to a venerable tradition of visionary or speculative architects—“paper architects” as they were known in pre-paperless days. Like the seemingly outlandish “inflatable cities” and “walking cities” proposed by the 1960s architecture collective Archigram, all of Hackett’s designs are technically feasible (I think), but even if they never get built, they have the potential to liberate us from the shackles of conventional thought and expand the horizons of what we consider possible. Hackett has voiced a strong interest in applying his imagination to the real world, revitalizing formerly redlined Black communities on their aesthetic terms. In so doing, he would be following in the footsteps of other contemporary Black urban designers like Walter Hood and Sekou Cooke—both of whom were featured in the 2021 MoMA exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America—and it will be exciting to see what he can accomplish on that front in the coming years. 


Apart from any potential real-world applications, though, Hackett’s images are meaningful on their own as works of art. The sculptural environments he envisions are as radical as the urban interventions of Christo and Jeanne-Claude or the recent work of Serge Attukwei Clottey, who carpeted the streets of Accra, Ghana, in handcrafted tapestries of deconstructed plastic jerrycans (Yellow Brick Road, 2022). As believable fiction, Hackett’s work could also be placed in conversation with the mise-en-scène visions of photographers like Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall or any of the growing number of artists now using AI. Despite these multiple resonances, and despite the deceptive feelings of warm familiarity that his images may engender, Hackett’s vision remains utterly singular and unlike anything else I’ve seen.


Ugly Beauties marks an important moment of institutional validation for Hackett since this commission resulted from an annual competition by the Van Alen Institute in partnership with Downtown Brooklyn. It also reaffirms the artist’s commitment to public discourse and to having his images seen by more than just a self-selected contemporary art audience, which is admirable. At the same time, I do hope it puts him on the radar of more art curators because he deserves more opportunities to exhibit his work—indoors as well as outdoors if he chooses.


Ugly Beauties is not flawless in execution. Printed on the same semi-transparent fence wrap used at construction sites, the images, which are so gloriously crisp and detailed in their original digital form, seem rather washed out and faded, which is a shame. From a distance, they are still legible, but up close they disappear almost entirely and all one sees is the metal scaffolding behind them. Metal scaffolding is not, in itself, a problem, but for a piece with such a strong horticultural theme, I would have also loved to have seen the inclusion of organic elements. Mary Mattingly’s Water Clock (2023) at Socrates Sculpture Park last year and Rashid Johnson’s New Poetry (2023) at the Whitney Museum are two examples of recent works that successfully incorporated both plants and scaffolding into their design. Hackett himself has used plants in the past. For his interactive installation Diasflora (2020) in Washington, DC, he invited the public to take home a variety of grasses and flowers as a way to visualize the ongoing processes of displacement that characterize the Black diaspora. Perhaps there were practical reasons why living plants were not used this time around. And, all in all, these are minor quibbles. The power of the images transcends the material limitations of the presentation, and even if no actual plants were used, the work nevertheless calls attention to the abundance of plant life in New York’s parks and community gardens—not to mention those models of resilience that poke through the cracks in the sidewalks under our feet.


I should also say that even though fence wrap is not ideal for image quality, the material is metaphorically appropriate. By referencing construction zones, Hackett reminds us that the process of building sustainable, empowered communities, like the process of building and maintaining a garden or the process of building an apartment complex, is something that requires dedication and labor. Flower power takes elbow grease.


All of this reminds me of an essay by Angela Davis, titled “Marcuse’s Legacies” (2004), in which the famed prison abolitionist recounts a conference she attended in 1967 with her then-graduate advisor, the utopian philosopher Herbert Marcuse. “Many of the young participants in the two-week conference decided to set up camp in the building,” she writes, “reproduc[ing], in abridged format, the radical experiments in communal living that characterized the era of the hippies.” She notes that Marcuse began his lecture “by acknowledging the numerous flowers people had brought… But, he said, ‘flowers, by themselves, have no power whatsoever, other than the power of the men and women who protect them and take care of them against aggression and destruction.’”


In his art, Curry J. Hackett envisions possible worlds that some might call utopian. However, they are not mere fantasies but deeply researched expansions of existing material culture traditions. There is something hard-nosed and pragmatic about his vision, too. Like Marcuse, he recognizes that beauty can’t protect us; rather, it’s up to us to protect whatever we find most beautiful in the world, and ourselves. The dandelions, yarrow, and burdock in Hackett’s installation are no wilting lilies or shrinking violets, either. They are tough city plants that have learned to protect their unconventional beauty against the encroaching ugliness of the world. More power to them!


Ugly Beauties will remain on view at The Plaza at 300 Ashland in Brooklyn through May 2nd. To see more of Hackett’s art and other projects, follow him on Instagram at @curryhackett

Images: Ugly Beauties (2024) by Curry J. Hackett of Wayside Studio; Lighting design by Jelisa Blumburg; Photos: Cameron Blaylock

bottom of page